PITTSBURGH – If the Cubs needed a moment to ignite a rivalry with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chris Coghlan might have delivered it by crashing into Jung Ho Kang with a hard slide that could echo into October.
The Cubs are playing with an edge now, positioning themselves as a dangerous team to face in the postseason with Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester fronting the rotation and a deep lineup that generated 17 hits during Thursday’s 9-6 victory at PNC Park.
“I don’t think we’re necessarily thinking about making a statement,” Coghlan said after the Cubs cut their playoff magic number down to nine. “I think our whole year has made a statement.”
Coghlan’s wipeout slide, barreling into Kang’s left leg, became the devastating postscript to the Cubs winning three of these four hard-fought games in Pittsburgh.
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The Pirates announced their South Korean shortstop underwent surgery at Allegheny General Hospital and will need six to eight months to recover from a torn left MCL and fractured tibia.
“I hate that he’s hurt,” said Coghlan, who sent a note over to Pittsburgh’s clubhouse. “He’s a great player and you never want to injury anybody. We’re a small fraternity as major-league players. You never want to see somebody hurt. But at the same time, you got to play the game hard.”
Manager Joe Maddon has been preaching “The Cubs Way” and sending his “Respect 90” message since spring training, when playing deep into October sounded like winning the lottery.
The Cubs now trail the Pirates by two games for home-field advantage in the Oct. 7 wild-card game (and have already clinched a winning record against their National League Central opponent).
The Pirates got the double play with the bases loaded in the first inning, but it came at a huge cost. Kang buckled when Coghlan’s right leg hammered his left leg, leaving him writhing in the dirt and clutching his knee.
“Absolute baseball,” Maddon said. “That is a good baseball play that’s been going on for the last hundred years. There’s no intent to hurt anybody. And sometimes you do get messed up. I’ve been on the side where my guy’s gotten hurt and sometimes the other guy gets hurt. But it’s just a good, hard baseball play.”
Kang’s agent, Alan Nero, who also represents Maddon, released a statement on behalf of his client:
“It is unfortunate that what would be considered heads-up baseball would cause such a serious injury. That said, Coghlan was playing the game the way it should be played. I’m confident he meant me no harm. I appreciate everyone’s support.”
Kyle Schwarber had already delivered a knee-to-knee shot on the previous play, when Kang dropped another potential double-play ball. This time, Kang needed help walking off the field and down into the dugout, wrapping his arms around a trainer and his interpreter.
“I’ve been injured,” Coghlan said. “I’ve hurt my knee. I’ve played infield. I know what it’s like to turn a double play.”
Kang has been a worthy challenger to Kris Bryant in the Rookie of the Year race, a middle-of-the-order force (15 homers, 58 RBI, .816 OPS) and a versatile defender who can play shortstop and third base.
Where Maddon framed it as a matter of Kang’s technique, Coghlan also accounted for the speed of the hitter – “(Anthony) Rizzo’s not a blazer” – and a ball slowly rolling toward second base. Change a variable and the split-second decision could be the shortstop holding onto the ball and stepping out of the way.
“I don’t go out of line,” Coghlan said. “I’m completely within the rules. It just stinks because he didn’t have enough time to jump over top of me.
“So then the collision looks bad because there’s no give, there’s no take. Usually, you flip it, you jump over top, and if you clip him, you clip him. He falls down, but it’s not a direct hit.”
The Cubs now return home to Wrigley Field for another marquee series against the St. Louis Cardinals after going 7-4 on this 11-games-in-11-days road trip.
Matt Holliday taking out Starlin Castro had once been a snapshot for that rivalry, but the Cubs aren’t conceding anything now, trailing the Cardinals by 6.5 games heading into Thursday night.
“All of us feel in here that we’re totally capable of catching them,” Coghlan said. “But that’s why you play the game. There’s a lot of variables. We can’t let our guard down. We have to beat the teams that we need to beat.”